When my husband and I moved from the hub of the city to a rural town three hours away, we knew it was not going to be an easy transition. This small town in northern KwaZulu-Natal didn’t promise us much apart from the experience of farm life. It’s only for a year, we reassured ourselves. Little did we know that during our tenure, our lives would be transformed by our mutual love of the wild.
Like so many people around the world, the sources of my knowledge of wildlife were TV documentaries and National Geographic magazines. I was fascinated by these intelligent creatures that co-existed with us humans in our environment. As Muslims, we are taught to respect all of Allah’s (SWT) creation, including flora and fauna. In one hadith, our Beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said, “If anyone wrongfully kills even a sparrow, let alone anything greater, he will face God’s interrogation.” (Mishkat al Masabih)
Coming from a country that boasts the world-renowned Kruger National Park, which is larger than the size of Wales, South Africa is very rich in wildlife. Novices as we were when it came to wildlife, my husband and I opted to do the self-drive in a game reserve near our new home. Not the wisest choice, we later learned.
In our own car, we drove along the dusty roads hoping to catch sight of the elusive leopard that this particular reserve harboured. In the sweltering heat of the late afternoon, we spotted various types of antelope, giraffe, jackal and zebra. Two hours later and still there was no sign of the leopard. Not completely satisfied, we were determined to go on a guided safari. This time with the hope of seeing a few of the Big Five.
The Big Five
The five greatest animals to hunt in Africa are the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. Hunters coined the term “The Big Five” for these animals. On our first guided safari together on another game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, my husband and I sat anxiously in the open vehicle, eagerly clutching our binoculars, hoping to catch sight of the Big Five. Unfortunately it wasn’t so easy. Wild animals roam the plains of their own volition and to spot them on a safari requires a bit of skill.
Our field guide doled out bits of trivia to us as we encountered various antelope like the kudu, eland, impala, duiker and steenbok. These antelope are very common in South Africa. The male kudu, with it’s corkscrew horns and patterned stripes on their body, are stunning in reality. They are browsers (feed on leaves and shoots) rather than grazers (feed on grasses).
Apart from the antelope, we spotted giraffe and zebra. Just as the sun began to set and our driver realised it was time to head back, we stumbled upon two of the Big Five! We spotted a herd of buffalo and a white rhino with her calf. Even though the reserve is known for their black and white rhino, the guide explained that both are in fact a greyish colour. The white rhino are grazers with square lips whilst the black rhino are browsers with hooked lips.
We carefully followed the rhino as she led her calf to a more lush area to feed on. They ignored us as we watched on from the vehicle, a mere few metres away. Imagine our delight when we spotted a bull rhino emerge from the thicket. Keeping a notable distance from the cow and her calf, the bull, almost twice the size of the cow, began grazing. Thrilled with seeing two of the Big Five, we longed to eventually see the other three.
Living in the Wild
The most exciting experience by far was our decision to spend a weekend in the wild. And I mean literally in the wild! In just a canvas tent on stilts (to prevent snakes from entering) in the middle of a game reserve that boasted the Big Five. We were not allowed to walk in the evenings, but had to be escorted in a vehicle from our tent to the reception area for fear of lions, elephants, or any other animal that may be lurking in the shadows. There had been an incident where a pride of lions surrounded one of the tents and roared till the wee hours of the morning!
At the crack of dawn, we awoke to the sounds of birds twittering. What a beautiful sight it was to unzip the doors of the tent and watch as the first signs of daylight appeared over the horizon. That weekend proved to be our best experience in the wild so far. We spotted lion, elephant, cheetah, hippopotamus, crocodile, a range of antelope and fascinating birds. Yet again, there was no sign of the leopard. At least we had seen four of the Big Five!
Our safari guide, an expert who had worked at the Kruger Park previously, told us remarkable true stories of wild animals. Like the South African bull elephant that cared for an orphan calf even though it was not a conventional practice amongst elephants. Usually when elephants reach an old age and are ready to die, they leave their herd and go into seclusion. This older elephant was about seventy years and nearing the end of his life because he couldn’t chew properly due to his decaying teeth. The very same calf that he adopted, now an adult, sought this older elephant and followed him around. He would chew the food for him and then using his trunk, transfer the food into the older elephant’s mouth! Subhaan Allah!
Four Down, One to Go
I was intrigued by this story and wondered just how many other intelligent creatures Allah (SWT) has created? We are told in the Noble Qur’an,
“Do you not see that Allah is the One Who is praised by all those who are in the heavens and in the earth? The very birds praise Him as they wing their flight. Each one knows its prayers and how to praise Him, and Allah has full knowledge of all their actions.” (Surah Nur: 41)
The joy of watching wild animals in their environment is something that every Muslim should experience. Just to replenish our sense of reality and to remind ourselves of Allah’s (SWT) greatness and His supreme reign over everything in this world. In the meantime, I’ll just have to accept that the only close-up of a leopard I’ll be seeing anytime soon is on the National Geographic channel.
Mariam Akabor is a long-time writer for SISTERS and resides in South Africa